26 January 2009

Secretary of State Clinton and VOA

The subject of U.S. International Broadcasting, including VOA, came up during the recent confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In response to questions from Senator Richard Lugar, Mrs. Clinton for the most part praised the performance of America's international broadcast entities.

Most important, from our perspective, she underscored a point we have often tried to make: “our international broadcast services demonstrate an essential lesson of free societies --- the requirement of an independent media for a robust democracy.”

She also underscored the need for what she termed “a strong and unambiguous fire wall between the professional journalists and editors (at VOA and other U.S. International Broadcasters)… and others in the U.S. government whether at the White House or the State Department. I recognize this to be a fundamental requirement of effective international broadcasting.”

The Secretary of State holds one of the seats on the Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), which oversees VOA and the other U.S.-financed broadcasters.

But Mrs. Clinton said the “most effective BBG will be one at arms length” from State and other government agencies.

Her comments come at a time when there has been much discussion about improving U.S. public diplomacy --- sometimes with proposals that would draw VOA into some new U.S. global communications strategy.

We at VOA believe, like Mrs. Clinton, that we can do our best work and serve our audiences best when we are able to operate independently.

VOA’s Journalistic Code says specifically: “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government.” The VOA Charter says, “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society…”

VOA offers news about the United States and US government policies because the United States has global interests that no responsible news organization, American or non-American, can ignore. Our research also shows many of our audiences want to hear about American culture, life, history, youth and more.

But our emphasis will always remain on offering reliable and authoritative news. As we have said before, if our audience perceives we are more interested in pursuing a political or ideological agenda than straight reporting, we will lose our credibility --- and our audience.

16 January 2009

Smith-Mundt Symposium

There was a symposium this past week here in Washington on the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. We’ve written about this legislation before because it formally bars the dissemination in the United States of official American information aimed at foreign audiences. That includes the news and information generated by the Voice of America.

In fact, here is what the act says: “information produced by VOA for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.”

Of course, the legislation has been somewhat outdated by technology. Audiences with access to the Internet or satellite TV or even a shortwave can still access VOA programming --- even if they live in the United States.

The point is, VOA is not allowed to intentionally target the U.S. audience. (And there is nothing illegal about Americans viewing, reading or listening to VOA material.)

In any case, the symposium heard a variety of voices on the subject of Smith-Mundt and the broader topic of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Some 200 people attended -- officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress as well as former U.S. Information Agency officials, some representatives from VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, members of the academic community and others. There was no immediate consensus on whether Smith-Mundt should be thrown out altogether, made less restrictive or made tougher.

But former VOA Director David Jackson, a panelist at the symposium, did make a couple of points we believe are worth repeating here. First of all, he stressed that all those working in the VOA headquarters in Washington are journalists. He said U.S. officials can “no more tell them what to write” than they can tell journalists at the Washington Post (newspaper) what to write. And he suggested that removal of the Smith-Mundt restrictions on VOA could help silence critics who claim the contents of VOA shows must be suspicious if the American people aren’t allowed to see them.

Well, we’ll just have to wait and see if Congress and the next administration consider this a priority.

In the meantime, more information about the symposium can be viewed at the “Mountainrunner” website of its organizer, Matt Armstrong.